Steven Holl, BCWH to Transform Richmond Crossroads

By R. Tyler King

This summer, Virginia Commonwealth University hired Steven Holl Architects, in association with BCWH of Richmond, to design a privately funded Institute for Contemporary Art at Richmond’s most heavily travelled intersection. The sheer scale and central location of the university’s Monroe Park campus, nationally recognized for its School of the Arts, already promises to reshape the city’s fabric.

“It’s going to be a game changer for Richmond,” explains School of the Arts Dean Joe Seipel. Expected to open in spring 2014, the non-collecting institute, with its 32,000 square feet of program space, will bring cutting-edge international art to the area and activate the street scene with its cafe, bookshop, and auditorium.

“This project is going to both challenge and enlighten the Richmond community’s sensibilities toward contemporary art and architecture,” agrees BCWH Principal-in-Charge Charles Piper, AIA. “The Broad Street site and the building’s museum program have the potential to generate a signature for the arts at VCU and a landmark of international consequence for central Virginia and our city.”

It is a site that needs some inspiration, Seipel says of what is now a halfblock parking lot. Holl’s ICA will enliven a rather lackluster intersection that currently features a gas station, a drug store, and a dormitory. Seipel believes that strategic massing of the building could allow the university to allot 50 percent or more to open, green space, such as a sculpture garden.

“We were very attracted to the project, as we believe in the public potential of the arts as a positive urban catalyst,” says Steven Holl. To illustrate how one might engage the streetscape with a museum of the arts, he cites his collaboration with Vito Acconci on the Storefront for Art and Architecture, a 1993 renovation that opened that gallery’s long façade to the street with a series of movable and tilting concrete panels, thus literally opening the New York City art scene to the public.

Holl draws a parallel between that playfully inviting project at the juncture of SoHo, Chinatown, and Little Italy in Manhattan with the VCU site in Richmond. “Broad Street has a long history as the primary commercial corridor in Richmond,” he says, “while Belvidere St. is the more recent urban manifestation of the crossing highway. We would like the building to feel open and inviting, while shielding the sculpture garden from traffic noise.”

The ICA’s potential for connectivity to the city extends beyond the Monroe Park campus, Seipel adds: “With the new Virginia Museum of Fine Arts addition and CenterStage performing arts center, the ICA will be one of those places that makes Richmond a destination city for the arts.”

In keeping with this theme, the City of Richmond has tentatively branded the Broad Street corridor as an Arts District. “It’s an excellent introduction to the city as people get off the highway,” notes Joseph Whitfield, curator at a nearby gallery and a VCU Sculpture and Extended Media student. Moreover, the intersection is the gateway to Broad Street’s monthly arts festival, First Friday’s Art Walk. “It will be interesting to see how a piece of sculptural architecture can further establish an already strong gallery culture in that area,” Whitfield says.

With offices in Beijing and New York, Holl has designed museums and higher-education buildings globally. Over the past decade, especially, he has become recognized for luminous, porous buildings with sensitive connectivity to challenging sites. “What interests me so much about his design is that it is inventive, surprising, and creative, yet doesn’t diminish what’s around it. It pays respect, but adds a contemporary edge,” Seipel says.

“The project will spark considerable discussion,” predicts BCWH Project Manager Charles Tilley, AIA. “I believe it will ultimately be embraced and lay a foundation for more contemporary work in our area.”

Though it is still too soon to release renderings of the ICA, the architects hope to have schematic design approved this fall. How will Holl and BCWH transform this crossroads for a budding university and city? Stay tuned.

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One Response to “Steven Holl, BCWH to Transform Richmond Crossroads”

  1. What I wonder about most of all is how it will impact an already unpleasant traffic intersection – bringing even more traffic. VCU seems to be in the parking garage construction business these days. So I wonder if that will be 1/2 of Holl’s plans.I hope they can pay more attention to pedestrians.

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